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Even after tragic crash, aviation safety rules slow to change

aviation.safety May 11, 1997
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EDT (1630 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One year ago Sunday, ValuJet Flight 592 slammed into the Florida Everglades, killing all 110 people aboard.

schiavo

Yet a year later, the Federal Aviation Administration still hasn't required smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in cargo holds -- which some believe could have prevented the ValuJet crash.

Former Transportation Department Inspector General Mary Schiavo explained the delay in simple terms to Congress members holding hearings on the ValuJet crash.


'Tombstone agency'

"Our safety agency is called the tombstone agency," she said, "... because they wait for major loss of life before they make a safety change."

Human lives are a major factor in the cost-benefit analysis the FAA must do before making changes. For example, the FAA rejected a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that smoke detectors and fire extinguishers be required in passenger plane cargo holds -- in 1993.


cargohold

The risk was low, the FAA found, since no passengers had died recently because of cargo hold fires -- and the $350 million cost exceeded the $159 million value placed on the passengers who might die.

The ValuJet crash changed that equation.

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"Now they've got the tombstones," said the NTSB's Bernard Loeb. "Now they can act ... and I'm suggesting that they need to look at things a little differently and predict the possibility that we could have catastrophic accidents and act on them before that occurs."

The NTSB says some safety improvements are rejected because much of the cost data comes from the airlines themselves. And they say it is prone to be inflated.

Airlines deny the process is skewed in their favor. They say requiring massive safety improvements without regard for cost would boost ticket prices and even ground some airlines.

Slow process

"You could do those things. ... No one would fly," said Ed Faberman of the Air Carriers Association of America. "So I think the FAA has to have some analysis of what the impact is going to be of their changes."

Even when the FAA decides to change safety rules -- such as those finally under way to require cargo hold smoke detectors and fire extinguishers -- it usually takes 2 1/2 years.

The slow process, said the FAA's Guy Gardner, is to guard against "bad law or bad rules." But Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Transportation committee, said the smoke detector and fire extinguisher rules are anything but bad law.

"My answer is that I hope they have respect for the lives of the American people and move forward with what, from my experienced eye, is a fairly straightforward recommendation," he said.

If not, Congress says it will keep looking for ways to fix the system of changing aviation safety rules.

Reporter Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.  
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